Needing a victory to keep their season alive, the Portland Trail Blazers did just enough to outlast the spirited, playoff-bound Brooklyn Nets in a 134-133 thriller on Thursday night in Orlando. The win gives Portland the top seed in the Western Conference Play-In this weekend against the Memphis Grizzlies, with a First Round match-up against the Los Angeles Lakers on the line. The Blazers officially finish the NBA re-start seeding games with a 6-2 record.
Damian Lillard turned in yet another spectacular performance to lead a fourth quarter comeback, and finished the game with 42 points on just 22 shots. He has now scored 153 points over the last three games. Caris LeVert was also terrific, chipping in 37 to lead Brooklyn, giving Blazers defenders fits all night long.
Both teams came out of the gate sharp offensively, with LeVert and CJ McCollum going mano a mano over the first few minutes. After the Blazers built up a modest lead, the Nets tied the game at the three-minute mark with back-to-back triples after starting the game 1-5 from distance. The score was tied at 31 after the first 12 minutes of action. Portland was just 1-6 from three in the quarter.
Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Tyler Johnson provided a nice spark off of the Brooklyn bench, while the Blazers got terrific scoring production from Hassan Whiteside against an undersized Nets second unit. After a quiet start, Lillard caught fire around the midway point of the period, and Portland again created minor separation. The Nets were able to hang around behind LeVert, who had 18 points in the half. Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Trent Jr. each picked up their third personal foul for the Blazers with under three minutes remaining.
Whiteside was fouled on a dunk attempt just before the buzzer, and his free throws put Portland up 73-67 at the break. The big man had 12 points by halftime, while Lillard and McCollum combined for 35. Meanwhile, the Nets shot 59% from the field and over 40% from beyond the arc.
Portland’s foul troubles continued, as both Nurkic and Carmelo Anthony committed their fourth foul within the first two minutes of the half, causing coach Terry Stotts to go to the bench earlier than expected. LeVert carried the Nets offensively, abusing the Blazers in the pick-and-roll as Portland had no answer to stop him. Brooklyn tied the game at 85 by the six-minute mark, taking the lead shortly after on a Jarrett Allen tip-in. As the Blazers went ice cold from the field, the Nets kept their foot on the gas to extend their lead to double-digits. The Nets outscored Portland 37-24 in the frame, taking a 104-97 lead into the final stanza.
Trent Jr. picked up his fifth foul within the first 30 seconds, but a legitimate Lillard logo bomb sent Brooklyn into an early timeout. The Nets began to double Lillard, allowing mismatches his teammates weren’t able to take consistent advantage of. While Portland dominated the glass for most of the night, they struggled mightily in the department throughout the quarter—giving the already red-hot Nets a number of second chance opportunities.
After a Nurkic lay-up put the Blazers up two late, Lillard came up with a clutch steal from LeVert, setting up a McCollum jumper that gave them a 134-130 lead with just under a minute remaining. While Portland forced a miss on the ensuing Nets possession, an offensive rebound set up a layup from LeVert, who was fouled on the play. After the free throw, with the Blazers up one, Anthony launched an open three in the corner that missed the mark, giving Brooklyn a chance at the win. McCollum stayed in front of LeVert on the final possession, whose step-back shot clanged off the back iron in the closing seconds to give Portland the 134-133 victory.
Dame to the Rescue
Things looked bleak entering the fourth quarter. But as he has done time and time again, Lillard put the Blazers on his back and willed them to victory. The logo shot served notice to Brooklyn that the game was far from over, and certainly gave the team some much-needed positive momentum going into the final push. Even facing intense defensive pressure, he was still able to stay involved offensively down the stretch, while Nurkic and McCollum added crucial buckets themselves.
Dame’s shooting numbers were terrific across the board—13-22 from the field, 8-14 from three and 8-9 from the line. He also dished out 12 assists and had two steals, including perhaps the biggest of his career—picking LeVert’s pocket in the final minute.
Hassan Rises to the Occasion
Hassan Whiteside has been hit-and-miss in his time in the bubble, and dealt with a variety of injuries. Tonight however, particularly in the first half, he was an absolute force off the Blazers bench. He started the game 5-5 from the field (finishing 5-6), providing an excellent one-two punch with Trent Jr., as each player finished with 16 points. Perhaps even more impressive, the big man was 6-6 from the line as the undersized Nets struggled to contain him at the rim without fouling.
Whiteside also finished with nine rebounds, including five offensive, while also adding two huge blocks on the defensive end of the court. If he can continue this kind of production going forward, Portland’s bench struggles will be greatly reduced—and it will presumably take a huge load off Nurkic’s shoulders.
Defensive Woes Continue
While Portland was able to get the stops they needed down the stretch, the Nets scored at will for much of night. LeVert was able to create his own shot consistently, dominating the mid-range and getting to the rim with ease. In addition to an overall 55% field goal percentage, Brooklyn shot 42% from the perimeter despite the fact that their best shooter—Joe Harris—was just 1-4 from three-point land. Portland’s foul trouble no doubt exacerbated this, but despite the adversity not a single player fouled out. Trent played nearly the entire fourth quarter with five fouls, but was still able to remain disciplined close out the game.
You can’t expect to score 134 a night very often, so the Blazers will absolutely need to clean things up defensively if they expect any kind of extended playoff run this season. We’ve seen it in flashes, and they were able to grab 10 steals thanks to active hands, but a complete game effort will be needed against the likes of the Lakers, if not the Grizzlies.
The Blazers face the Grizzlies in the first Play-In game on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. PT. A win advances them to a First Round date against the Lakers, while a loss would force a do-or-die finale on Sunday afternoon.